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GUEST COLUMN: Illinois higher education in disarray; can it be saved?

Illinois higher education is in disarray as a result of an exodus of students from our state, uncertain state funding, declining high school graduation numbers, excess capacity, and the seeming implosion of several state universities.

Background. Three-quarters of a million of our citizens enroll each year at the state’s 12 public university campuses, 48 community college districts (with many campuses) and 110 private nonprofit and for-profit institutions of post-secondary learning. In addition, our major research universities such as the University of Illinois in Urbana and Chicago pump out top engineers and scientists, who generate patents and startups. Strong higher education is critical to our state’s future.

In 2000, a national group that knows about such things declared Illinois to have the best higher education offerings among the states for quality and affordability. No longer.

Because of reduced state spending for higher ed in recent years, Illinois’ public universities and colleges jacked up their tuition, making our in-state student costs among the highest in the nation.

Further, under former Gov. Bruce Rauner, higher education went for two recent years with zippo state funding, which sent alarm bells clanging throughout our colleges and among students worried about their financial aid. Seeing the disarray, universities in neighboring states began offering lower tuition than our own institutions. As a result, nearly half of all Illinois high school graduates going on to four-year schools now enroll out of state.

Some Illinois institutions are weathering the storm quite nicely; others, not.

The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign hangs on as one of the world’s great research centers. In recent years, for example, UIUC has been winning more National Science Foundation grant money annually than any campus in the nation. And enrollment has climbed to 50,000.

I say “hangs on” because the competition for top-tier status is brutal, and most competitors have been dealt better hands. For example, most elite research universities are located in mega-city regions on the coasts, where it is much easier to find good jobs for professional spouses of young faculty being recruited than it is in the small twin cities in the corn fields. And of course, the recent funding hiatus gave top faculty recruits qualms about starting their careers at UIUC.

Further, the U of I endowment is less than a tenth that of the top research schools. Offsetting this, according to former U of I president Bob Easter, is a UIUC reputation for an inviting culture, which nurtures faculty research among budding faculty stars.

The UI-Chicago is the really hot campus, enrollment having shot above 30,000 in the past couple of years. Located at the foot of the Loop’s soaring skyscrapers, UIC can be reached easily by millions of people via the region’s dense public transit offerings. Once a poor stepchild of UIUC, UIC was ranked this year by the Wall Street Journal as one of the 10 best universities in the nation for quality and cost.

Just a chip shot down old Route 66 and Amtrak, Illinois State University is well-managed and going strong. The same can’t be said, however, for the directional state universities out in Carbondale, Charleston and Macomb, which now enroll less than half the numbers of a decade or so back.

State lawmakers representing these schools will fight tooth and toenail to keep them from being shuttered. But if these institutions don’t get their acts together, they will simply continue withering.

And the future doesn’t look promising. The state has no new money for higher education. Any new revenue from a proposed tax on the wealthy will be scooped up to pay old bills, Medicaid, pensions, K-12 education and starving state agencies such as those for children’s services and natural resources. And high school graduation numbers are projected to decline steadily over coming years.

What to do? The options would appear to include laissez-faire, survival of the fittest, as at present or, as some suggest, putting all state higher education under one controlling board. I think the former is better than the latter.

I do think state leaders should strengthen the once powerful, now toothless, Illinois Board of Higher Education. This agency used to have the ear of the governor and Legislature, which allowed it to coordinate among the institutions, and reject new programs that weren’t needed.

The IBHE, university leaders, state political and civic leaders need to come together to inventory all public and private higher ed resources; determine what we want to accomplish, and how best to apply scarce resources in order to keep our best and brightest in the state, while attracting other young talent to Illinois.

JIM NOWLAN was a senior fellow and political science professor at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. He has worked for three unindicted governors and publishes a weekly newspaper in central Illinois.

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